There's always been a sort of divide between eSports and "traditional" sports. For a long time, people would picture gamers sitting behind their PCs in a big line, clicking away furiously, and many would wonder what relation it held to "real" sports. I don't want to focus on the debate about whether or not eSports are "sports". Instead, I wanted to take a closer look at what happens when big money is involved in asking sporting professionals to take part in an eSports-version of their career roles.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the only sensible option was to cancel or postpone many real-world sporting events. The Olympics, Euro 2020, and a lot of the Formula One calendar. People still want to watch these sports, and there's a lot of money to be made from the advertising, sponsorship, TV rights, and ticket sales associated with them.
It makes sense then, that the announcement came that an eSports version of the Formula One series would be held online, while the real events could not be held. It made less sense, to me at least, that Codemasters' game F1 2019 would be used to host these online events.
But games aren't like real life...
Most video games are not like real life, even if they come with the word "simulation" on the box. You cannot send a professional Call of Duty player to a battlefield in the real world. Learning to use a deadly military rifle is not the same as using a keyboard and mouse, or a controller, to shoot people in a video game. I think most people would find that pretty self-explanatory.
Some skills might transfer, like situational awareness, and survival instincts, and the US military famously uses Xbox controllers to fly drones, but we're still talking about tenuous links.
The same is not true of motor racing, and certain other genres like flight simulators. For a reasonable (or exorbitant, depending on your preference) sum of money, you can plug a steering wheel and a set of pedals into your computer or console and have a pretty similar setup to a vehicle.
The skills are the same: if you learn to drive (and race) well in a simulation, you can transfer these skills to real life. For those with any doubts, 2017 British Touring Car Championship winner Ashley Sutton was raised on virtual motor racing, in amongst real-life karting experience. He is just one of many.
All racing games were not created equal
To put this in perspective, imagine asking Formula One drivers to take part in a Mario Kart competition. I think it's fairly clear that it doesn't have much to do with real-life motor racing, and the emphasis is on fun and using various power-ups, rather than competitive balanced racing.
That's to say, there's a number of ways to create any racing game, and it all comes down to audience appeal. Driving a powerful car fast on a circuit is hard; it's not a skill most people have, despite how they might appraise their own driving skills. To appeal to a wider audience, many racing games lower the accuracy of the simulation, so that everyone has a chance of getting good.
This isn't the same as driver aids. Convenience features like a visual driving line, traction control, and spin recovery are nothing to do with the simulation. They exist separately, to level the playing field further, although the more hardcore racing sims do deliberately lack some of the aids.
F1 2019 is not a simulation
Codemasters have been putting out F1-series games for a number of years, each year, with a mass market appeal. Formula One is exciting to watch, and it makes sense that they want to put the sport in the hands of as many people as possible so they can enjoy taking part virtually, from home.
If it was limited to those who owned a steering wheel and pedals, and couldn't be played on a controller, that would eliminate many sales. The official Formula One licence is a big deal, and these games need to sell well.
As a result, we have a game that, even on the most realistic settings, is not a true simulation. It's not meant to be. It's not a slight against the game in any way; many people prefer these kinds of games absolutely because they don't need to have the skills of a professional race driver just to enjoy a virtual Grand Prix.
But this is why F1 2019 is not a good choice for real-world professionals competing in an eSport. It was not designed with this in mind, and despite being able to plug in a steering wheel and pedals, as I noted in my F1 2017 review, the series is known for favouring the controller as an input device, just because it's the one that most people playing this type of game will have.
eSport racing done right
As a counter-example, NASCAR decided to use iRacing to host their eSports events, despite there being other NASCAR games on the market. iRacing is a very niche title: it's almost impossible to succeed without a proper steering wheel and pedals setup, it's not available on consoles, and it charges a monthly subscription fee. Not mass market appeal like F1 2019.
The big difference, of course, is the level of the simulation. It's regarded as the closest thing to the real sport that's available (although some would make that case for Assetto Corsa), and it's a much better choice here.
Not to mention, the multiplayer and broadcast features in iRacing are fit for purpose: a large number of iRacing events are regularly broadcast on Twitch and YouTube, not by a single gamer taking part, but by a broadcast crew, including commentators and camera operators.
Full disclosure: I used to be one of those commentators!
It's not about favouritism
Assetto Corsa is also a fine choice for eSports. So is rFactor 2. It's not about the choice of a specific title, but about the level of simulation being represented. The very point of motor racing, which applies in the virtual world as much as it does in the real world, is to test the skill and resolve of each driver at getting a very fast machine to the finish line first, without making any (large) mistakes.
The less realism in the simulation, the more you're being misled that the drivers in the race are really doing the things for which they're famous in the real world, as the game takes over by not simulating parts of the experience.
Aren't you taking this a bit too seriously?
Yes. The important thing is that people have something to keep them entertained while they are stuck at home during the lockdown, and I'm more than happy that real-world professionals are willing to engage with eSports to make that happen. It's not going to generate any new world champions, but it's a bit of fun for everyone at home, and that's really what video games are designed for.
Of course, the cynic in me says that since Codemasters have the Formula One licence, they were always going to get the eSports deal, and that games shouldn't have a monopoly on rights to specific racing brands or vehicle brands (I'm looking at you, Porsche).
Really, what's going on here is that non-gamers are being introduced to the world of eSports, and gamers are getting to see the real-world sport on their TV (or computer screen) like any other Formula One fan, for all those who don't cross over into both categories.
In fact, the boost that this will give to motor racing eSports in particular, will hopefully lead to the development of more young talent in the sport, and the likes of the Ginetta Juniors championship in the real world, limited to the very top young talent, might be accompanied by more and more virtual racers developing those same skills, and making a better sport for everyone.
So, with all that said, do I recommend you go out and pick up a copy of F1 2019 to try all this for yourself? No! Absolutely not. It's a terrible excuse for a motor racing simulation. Do yourself a favour, save up for a wheel and pedals, fire up Assetto Corsa, or save up even more for an iRacing subscription, and enjoy. I won't blame you if you watch the virtual Formula One online though!